Team depth has Sounders challenging on all trophy fronts
For a guy who's hopscotched around North America this week, flying from Seattle to Guatemala to New England, Seattle Sounders coach Sigi Schmid was in a chipper mood when he reached me from Foxboro, Mass., on Wednesday night. He had every right to be, considering his team is pulling off one of the most impressive feats of 2011 in U.S. soccer.
Like a circus performer juggling three chain saws with a smile on his face, Seattle is the only MLS team still in the running in three tournaments (involving four trophies):
• Next Tuesday Seattle will host Chicago in the U.S. Open Cup final, as the Sounders attempt to become just the fourth team in the knockout tournament's 98-year history (and first since 1969) to win three straight titles.
• On Tuesday this week, Seattle became the first (and so far only) MLS team to clinch a berth in the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions League next spring with a 2-2 tie at Comunicaciones in Guatemala.
• This Saturday Seattle will meet New England in MLS league play, where the Sounders are in second place behind Los Angeles in the race for the MLS Supporters Shield (for best regular-season record). With four games left for each team, Seattle is seven points behind the Galaxy.
• In November Seattle will be one of the top seeds in the MLS Cup playoffs.
"We feel all four [trophies] are in play, and we want to go for them," says Schmid, the only coach to win MLS Cup titles with two different teams. "I think the Supporters Shield at this stage is probably the most difficult one to get, just because of the amount of points we're behind the Galaxy. But it's certainly nothing we've given up hope on."
How have the Sounders done this? After all, their early-season challenges were like plot twists in a bad movie. One of their Designated Players, forward Blaise Nkufo, left the team in a huff just minutes before the season's opening game. Then arguably their two most influential attackers of the first month were lost to freak season-ending maladies: Steve Zakuani's horrific broken leg (suffered in a tackle by Colorado's Brian Mullan) and O'Brian White's arterial blockage in his leg. Toss in a glut of competitive games -- Seattle could play as many as 51 in 2011, more than any other MLS team -- and the Sounders' ability to multitask and win has been remarkable.
"I think the most important aspect is psychological," says Schmid. "We approach each tournament with the idea that we're in them because we're a good team, so we want to win." In other words, you would never see Seattle punt and send a team of all reserves to a U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal, as New York did against Chicago this year. You play to win the game.
Of course, it helps that Seattle is getting standout seasons out of so many different players. Holdovers like Fredy Montero, Kasey Keller, Ossie Alonso, Álvaro Fernández, Jeff Parke and Brad Evans have been reliably productive all season. Meanwhile, Argentine midfielder Mauro Rosales, 30, has been the biggest surprise, thrusting himself into the league MVP race with five goals, 12 assists and the kind of leadership that comes when you've played in big games for River Plate, Ajax and the 2004 Argentine Olympic gold medalists.
In the spring, Seattle got a call from Rosales' agent saying he'd be interested in a move. "We were shocked that he would be willing to come on a trial," says Schmid. "It only took a day to figure out this guy could help us." Hamstrung by a lack of cap space, the Sounders convinced Rosales to play on a league-minimum $42,000 salary with the knowledge that if he succeeded there would be a much bigger windfall down the line. (Indeed, Seattle is about to tie up those renegotiations, Schmid says.) While Rosales has been out for two weeks with a sprained MCL, Schmid says they're aiming to have him on the field for Tuesday's Open Cup final before a home crowd in excess of 30,000.
The other keys to finding quality depth in MLS is how you manage your salary cap and whether you can acquire useful players for little money, tasks at which Schmid has proved more adept than any other MLS coach this side of Bruce Arena. "A lot of teams are top-heavy with seven or eight players, so that eliminates what you can do depth-wise down the line," Schmid says. "We've had some guys who you wouldn't necessarily call stars, but they're very competent professionals, like Zach Scott and Roger Levesque, who are playing for not much money but have experience."
With so much travel and so many games with a short turnaround time, Schmid and his staff have to manage their lineup choices like a complicated calculus problem. Before the current five-game stretch including the Open Cup final, they drew out lineups for every game on a board, including a couple gray areas and question marks. The idea was to use their best lineups for priorities like the Open Cup final, the Cascadia Cup-clinching win vs. Vancouver and enough quality to get a result in Guatemala (which they did). Less emphasis was placed on Saturday's league game at New England -- which Schmid is still hoping to get something out of, just as Seattle did with a similar lineup in its surprise CCL win at Monterrey.
Schmid says one important tool in managing playing time has been
Every little bit matters when the games are coming fast and furious, and that will be the case again with a third straight Open Cup triumph on the line this Tuesday. No team has won three Open Cups in a row since New York Greek American in 1967-69.
"We talk about history all the time, about being the first to do something," Schmid says. "When we got to the Vancouver game, we talked about it being the first Cascadia Cup. Being the first MLS team to win two Open Cups in a row was important. If we can win three in a row, that's even more important. We want to make history so that when you're old and walk in with your cane to the Seattle Sounders Hall of Fame you can show your grandkids, that's me in the picture with our third consecutive championship."
And if these Sounders can win the first trophy of a potential four, you might see the German-born Schmid kick off his own version of Oktoberfest in the Seattle locker room. "I told [goalkeepers coach] Tommy Dutra I'd give him 50 bucks if he walks in with his lederhosen to the locker room," Schmid cracks. "That's about as Oktoberfest as we'll get."